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History of the Book: Early Printing in America

This guide is designed to help you understand the historical roots of print publications, ranging from prehistory to modern day printing.

Early Printing in America

Printing presses were established in the American colonies just two decades after European contact in 1620. Printing had existed in North America prior to 1638 with the first printing press being erected in Mexico City in 1539 (Valentine, 2012); The first printing press was sponsored by Juan de Zumarraga, Mexico's first bishop (Valentine, 2012.) The first printing press in the colonies was set up at a new college in the Massachusetts Bay Colony named Harvard College (Lienhard, n.d.) The press was brought over from England by Puritan Minister Jose Glover and his wife Elizabeth (Ireland, 2012.) Glover had a pronounced interest in the development of the college and assisted in raising funds for its opening, even going as far purchasing a press and all required accessories needed for its use with a combination of his own funds and funding from friends of the college (McMurtrie,1943.) Sadly, Glover died before the press was erected, dying of small pox on his second trip across the Atlantic (McMurtrie, 1943.) However, Mrs. Glover arranged for the purchase of the property where the printing plant would be located (McMurtrie,1943.) Stephen Day erected the first printing press in the colonies and was the first business director of the printing office (McMurtrie,1943). Some of the first texts made from this press include The Freeman's Oath, An Almanac for 1639, calculated for New England, and The Whole Booke of Psalmes faithfully Translated into English Metre, which is alternatively known as The Bay Psalm Book (McMurtrie, 1943).

The vvhole booke of Psalmes faithfully translated into English metre (1640) (Library of Congress, n.d.)

Printing would eventually become a way of bringing European culture to a foreign land (McMurtrie, 1943.) The majority of materials printed in the colonies at this time were religious in nature, followed later by children's instructional literature and textbooks (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Films Media Group, and Planet Pictures,1997).  As in Europe, printing created a bustling industry in America and provided the colonists with an outlet to openly express their ideas (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Films Media Group, and Planet Pictures,1997). Print shops, being very busy places, would sometimes use up to three presses and would typically have at least four workers per press (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Films Media Group, and Planet Pictures,1997); two workers would set a press and two workers would run it  (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Films Media Group, and Planet Pictures,1997). One of the most important American cities at the time was Philadelphia, focal point of the American Revolution, home of Benjamin Franklin for almost 70 years, and birthplace of the first American edition of the Bible translated into English in 1782 (McMurtrie, 1943.) The printers in the city of Philadelphia, on both sides, made significant contributions to the war between England and the colonies (McMurtrie, 1943.) Additional landmarks in the history of early printing in the colonies include the printing of the first newspaper in 1704 and the binding of the first book in 1660. Paper was still fairly expensive to produce during this time; Ireland (2012), notes that when Glover traveled overseas with his press, the press was "worth 20 pounds and paper worth twice that much." (Ireland, 2012.) Paper was made the same way until almost 1800 CE, with the process including pulverizing and fermenting cotton rags and then pressing the rags to remove moisture and bundling them. The process of printing and producing paper would change during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, when paper would be produced from wood pulp in continuous rolls which went into newly developed high speed, stem-powered cylindrical machines that were much more efficient than hand presses (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Films Media Group, and Planet Pictures,1997.) The shift from using linen rags to using wood and vegetable pulps made it possible to mass produce paper far more easily (Britt, n.d.); the strength and durability of the fibres of cellulose in the materials used to make paper pulp make this the ideal material for making paper, even today (Britt, n.d.) The downside to producing paper in this way is that, because it is also treated with chemicals while it is being made, paper made from wood pulp is more acidic and the paper degrades quicker than paper made from linen rags, especially in warm, humid conditions (Valentine, 2012.)


Friedrich Koenig - Wikipedia


Fredrich Koenig's steam-driven printing press (1814) (Parhamr, 2007.) {{PD-Art}}

The invention of these higher-speed machines, as well as a diminished cost of producing paper, lead to increased production and dissemination of literature to the masses, including books and newspapers  (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Films Media Group, and Planet Pictures,1997). The level of education influenced the literacy level of newspapers so that some newspapers were targeting more literate audiences than others  (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Films Media Group, and Planet Pictures,1997). It would be an apt statement to say that modern printing found its roots through Industrial America.




Britt, K.W. Papermaking. In Encyclopedia Britannica.

Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Films Media Group, and Planet Pictures (Firms) (1997). Print History [Documentary]. Films on Demand.

Ireland, C. (2012.) Harvard's first impressions. Harvard University.

Library of Congress (n.d.) The vvhole booke of Psalmes faithfully translated into English metre. Whereunto is prefixed a discourse declaring

       not only the lawfullnes, but also the necessity of the heavenly ordinance of singing Scripture Psalmes in the churches of God. [Image].

       Library ofCongress.

Lienhard, John H. (n.d.) Engines of Our Ingenuity: No. 733: First US Press. University of Houston.

McMurtrie, Douglas, C. (1943). The book; The story of printing and bookmaking. Oxford University Press.  

Parhamr (2007) Koenig's steam press - 1814 [Image] Wikimedia Commons. 

Valentine, Patrick M. (2012). A social history of books and libraries from cuneiform to bytes. The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

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